The mega show

Published : May 21, 2010 00:00 IST

A.R. Rahman performing at the closing ceremony before the final between Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings in the third edition of the IPL Twenty20 at the D.Y. Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai on April 25.-K.R. DEEPAK

A.R. Rahman performing at the closing ceremony before the final between Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings in the third edition of the IPL Twenty20 at the D.Y. Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai on April 25.-K.R. DEEPAK

WHEN Praveen Kumar of Royal Challengers Bangalore bowled the first ball of the Indian Premier League (IPL) to Sourav Ganguly of Kolkata Knight Riders in front of a full house at Bangalores Chinnaswamy Stadium on April 18, 2008, cricket moved into a new sphere. It was a regal start to an event that promised a colourful combination of cricket and entertainment in a form that had caught the imagination of the young generation.

This cricket was different. It was a package that threatened to devour the traditional form of the game. The purists were appalled. But the layman applauded. Administrators were convinced that T20 was the elixir that cricket needed and the IPL, born out of a desire to capitalise on the entertainment factor, was just the way forward. Teams were auctioned and players were traded in a manner that did not go down well with the traditionalists. Some were given the status of an icon, which essentially meant that the franchises were assured of one big cricketer in their collection. The hype that the event managers generated went a long way in creating the right platform for the IPL to be launched.

The initial apprehensions were blown away in quick time. Packed audience greeted the teams and 44 days were all it took to give the cricket world a rich platform to showcase young talent. The veterans too contributed to the competitive flavour and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was laughing its way to the bank.

If the IPL was about money, there was little to complain as far as the Board was concerned. Incredible turnouts, Ravi Shastri gushed even as he enjoyed his commentary stint in the shortest form of the game. The IPL created a new class of spectators and a very different breed of cricketers. It rocks, the commentators raved. But there were doubts in certain quarters of the International Cricket Council (ICC). The anti-corruption units officers could not attend IPL matches because it was a domestic tournament that did not fall in the ICCs jurisdiction.

It did rock. The following for the IPL was huge, at home and overseas. There was an unmistaken wave of popularity that left even the organisers in a daze. It may have been the dream of Lalit Modi, but it was the success of the first edition of the Indian Cricket League (ICL) that prompted the Board to launch its own T20 league.

The ICL, conceptualised by the Essel Group with backing from former Test cricketers Kapil Dev and Kiran More, managed to attract a considerable number of former and current cricketers, who, promptly, were termed rebels by cricket authorities the world over. It was a throwback to the days when Kerry Packer jolted the cricket authorities in Australia by launching a rebel series. Fearing an exodus of players and threatened by the response to the ICL, the Board stepped in to crush the league. The ICL was denied access to stadiums owned by the Board and this gave rise to a battle of attrition. Even as the ICL struggled to complete its second edition, the Board came up with a proposal to grant amnesty to the rebels. The ICL died a quick death and the way was cleared for the IPL.

Problems surfaced in the second season when the IPL was shifted to South Africa for security reasons. Many Board members were unhappy with the decision, but then Modis writ prevailed and the Government of India stood embarrassed for expressing its inability to provide security to the mega event. The first signs of a possible confrontation between the authorities and the IPL were evident. The backstage activities were worrying. There were reports of young cricketers desperate to get into IPL teams. The attraction of a spot in an IPL team created an unhealthy competition among cricketers. A few senior cricketers unofficially warned the Board of the possible dangers of easy money spoiling young cricketers. Amnesty to the ICL rebels led to a mad race and the IPL franchises were flooded with talent from all over.

To earn a place in an IPL team became a burning ambition of aspiring cricketers. There were instances of players skipping State games in order to stay fit for the IPL. A new breed of cricketers marked the game, but all these problems were brushed aside because the IPL proved a huge success in South Africa, too. It was a 37-day tournament that ended a week before the second edition of the T20 World Cup in England.

India, the defending champion, fared poorly at the T20 World Cup, and it was hardly surprising when coach Gary Kirsten blamed the IPL for the debacle. The intensity that you need at the international game where the standard of cricket is much higher than it was in the recent IPL was not there, said Kirsten. All the members of Indias T20 squad for the World Cup had participated in the IPL. In the process, Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan got injured and it cost the team dear.

The third edition of the IPL had its share of controversies. Some overseas cricketers chose to skip the event and some joined late because they gave priority to their commitments with their respective national teams. The storm raised by the non-inclusion of Pakistani cricketers further dented the image of the competition as being truly universal. Pakistan cricket stood humiliated when none of the franchises picked any player from the team that had won the last T20 World Cup.

Once again, the IPL, this time a 43-day affair, commanded packed audiences. The circus travelled to new venues Cuttack, Dharamshala and Ahmedabad since matches were moved out of Hyderabad for security concerns. The quality of the competition dipped for various reasons. The form of some of the known stars, such as Matthew Hayden, Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist, was disappointing and the playing surfaces too came in for criticism. The redeeming factor was the entertaining batting of Sachin Tendulkar, who did not adopt the cross, and crass, methods to make runs, once again highlighting the importance of the correct way of batting. The tournament was a huge success again in terms of financial returns.

Thanks to the IPL, the coaches at various academies faced a different challenge. Ambitious parents were now pushing them to prepare their kids for the IPL. I was shocked when a father came and said he was keen his son played in the IPL, said a Delhi coach, known to have produced some technically excellent cricketers. I have always taught a trainee batsman to play straight, but now I have to include the reverse-sweep and the switch hit in my coaching, remarked another reputed coach. The IPL was beginning to change the approach of youngsters to cricket. All the glamour that marked the IPL teams sent wrong signals.

This point was best illustrated by Sunil Gavaskar, member of the IPLs Governing Council. At a lecture in Mumbai last year, he warned: Parents are encouraging their children to take up cricket as a career option because of the IPL and the amount of money it provides. But the worrying factor is far too many youngsters see the IPL as the be all and end all. A lot of players miss out on domestic cricket before the IPL to avoid injuries. That is what we have to be very careful about the IPL being seen as the be all and end all, not the India cap. The other thing to guard against is players in the age group of 19-22 going the wrong way [because of the money factor]. Younger players get carried away by fame, publicity and success.

At the end of IPL Season 3, the game stands tainted with allegations of betting and match-fixing. The warning signals had come when Paul Condon of the ICCs anti-corruption unit made some serious observations. As head of the unit, he was convinced that the IPL could lead to the biggest corruption scandal. He feared the IPL could revive the bad old days that wrecked the game when cricket matches in Sharjah were influenced by some off-the-field forces.

Cricket has taken a back seat in this entertainment package unfolded by a lethal combination of the corporate world and the film industry. The franchises have invested money in a product that is more of entertainment than sport.

The cheerleaders at the ground, the DJs, the after-match parties (IPL nights), the ramp shows and the invasion by cinema celebrities and the corporate world have pushed cricket into the background. Yuvraj Singh, Rohit Sharma and S. Sreesanth, hugely gifted cricketers all, have been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. This is not what the cricket authorities had imagined when the IPL was launched with great fanfare in April 2008.

This certainly is not cricket as the purists have come to believe! Only time will tell if cricket remains a sport or degenerates into a crude form of entertainment.

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